BEIJING — The Chinese government unveiled charges Wednesday against Wang Lijun — the former provincial police chief who triggered in China’s biggest political scandal in two decades — alleging that he took bribes, tried to defect and abused his power.
Wang set in motion a political crisis in February when he fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and reportedly told U.S. officials that the wife of his boss, a powerful party chief Bo Xilai, had murdered a British businessman.
Now Wang is charged with “bending the law for personal gain” because he did not sufficiently investigate the murder of Neil Heywood, reven though he suspected the involvement of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Prosecutors are also charging him with the crime of defecting due to his flight to the U.S. Consulate. Wang reportedly stayed at the consulate for 24 hours fearing for his safety before walking out.
The woman he accused of murder, Gu was given a suspended death sentence after a one-day trial last month. Her husband, a powerful former party chief of Chongqing, still has not been charged with any crimes, although his abrupt downfall has roiled the Chinese political landscape for months.
Unlike many of politicially sensitive defendants or dissidents, Wang has been able to hire his own lawyer, a longtime friend named Wang Yuncai.
In an interview last week, Wang Yuncai said she was hired by Wang Lijun and his family early this summer.
Wang Yuncai, who now works for the Shenyang Longan law firm, first met Wang Lijun in 1999 when she defended him in a lawsuit filed by a rickshaw driver who claimed he was injured by Wang Lijun, then a top police official in Liaoning Province, say Chinese news reports. Wang Lijun won the case.
Later, according to Chinese media, she advised him on his infamous “da hei,” or “strike the black,” campaigns, ruthless law enforcement initiatives that displayed zero tolerance for crime.
She told the Washington Post she has met with Wang Lijun but added, “I am not allowed to release any information about this case.”
The charges filed against Wang are the latest in a series of actions in recent weeks that suggest factions within the ruling Communist Party may be using scandals to take out rivals and strengthen their position of power.
“The party has the whole issue under control,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing. “The central committee is handling the leadership transition step by step as planned. Gu Kailai is the first to go on trial, Wang is the second, and Bo Xilai will be the last one.”
News of the charges against Wang broke hours before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to leave Beijing after a quick trip this week to meet with Chinese leaders.
U.S. officials said they were not told ahead of time that the charges were coming, though they broadly expected that Wang would face judicial action at some point. Officials also said they could sense some anxiety during their visit over the upcoming transfer of leadership.
After the Xinhua report emerged, Clinton departed for the airport a half hour earlier than scheduled. The timing raised the possibility that Chinese authorities wanted to send a message to the U.S. government about what they perceive as meddling in their internal affairs.
One diplomat in Beijing, however, cautioned against reading too much into the timing of the charges against Wang. “If the Chinese really wanted to send a strong message, they could have done it at the beginning or during Clinton’s meetings, not at the end,” the diplomat said.
It was not the first time that bumpy internal Chinese politics surfaced during a visit by a U.S. government leader. In early 2011, just before Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military undertook the first test flight of its J-20 stealth fighter prototype.
Gates later said it seemed the Chinese military had kept the test a secret from even the country’s civilian leaders. Hu assured him it had nothing to do with the U.S. visit.
The name “Wang Lijun” in Chinese was censored on Weibo microblogging sites late Wednesday. Said one commenter: “I can’t figure it out! The ‘da hei’ hero of yesterday became the suspect with four charges today. Politics is not something ordinary people will understand.”
Li Zhuang, a former lawyer who defended people accused during Wang’s “da hei” campaign in Chongqing, was thrown into prison by Wang for two and a half years. He said his feelings about the latest turn for Wang were summarized by a Chinese saying: “The more evil you do, the more likely you will be destroyed.”
Staff researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.